On keeping my last name

Romantic love is a luxury of modern times. In the “old days,” marriage was not about love, it was about property exchanges and gain for the men involved in the transaction–the father and the groom. If you happened to also fall in love with your betrothed, you were extremely lucky. In most–but admittedly not all–cases a woman had very little say in who she would marry. Marriage was an invention to legitimize children and determine inheritance. It is only in the modern age that marriage has been strictly about love. To pretend that marriage was a divine transaction given to us by some greater power based on romantic love is to revise history in the context of modern society. Even the Old Testament has stories about women being traded or married off specifically for the advancement or benefit of the male parties.

The reason a woman changed her last name in those days is because she became by law the property of her husband. She left the household of her father–whose property she was deemed previously–and switch owners to her betrothed. As such, she received the last name of her husband to testify to this ownership.

All this said, I have a lot of trouble accepting a tradition that is really handed down to us from a much darker time for womankind. I realize another thing we’ve rewritten through time is what it means to change your last name, which is why I did it the first time I got married, and that is it symbolizes the two in love becoming one–a team. I accept this as a better interpretation of the tradition. But why does it always have to be the woman who changes her name? Why can’t men step up and offer to take the woman’s name?

Oh, to ask a man to do this illicits such furious fights. Stammerings of, “But, but, but this is my identity!!” (I’ve only had one boyfriend who offered to take my name if we got married. And I’m not sure if he was joking or not.)

Bingo. And you think I want to lose my identity, the name I’ve kept for 34 years (minus the few years I had my late husband’s last name until I changed it back in 2005)? I’ve been an E longer than I’ve been an F; I am comfortable with myself as an E. I’m proud to be an E because the E’s loved me and supported me throughout all the tumultuous days of my grieving. Where were the F’s in all this struggle? They were busy fighting over who knew Mike more and who deserved what he left behind more than his wife who he only knew for a pittance of three years.

I believe that your blood family is the only family who truly loves you, even if they don’t always show it. In my husband’s death, I learned the value of family and I appreciate my own much more than I ever did. I was stupid to believe that my in-laws could possibly love me as much as the mother who bore me for nine months and the father who worked to put food in our mouths throughout my childhood. I earned my last name. I earned it through pain and tears and grieving. The Es will have my back forever, whether they like it or not, because they are stuck with me. In-laws and other people have the option to move about freely–their only connection to you is through their own child so when that’s gone, they have the ability to break the bonds of the so-called marriage family.

It’s not just the anger, though, from being rejected by my in-laws that spurs my desire to hang onto my last name. I went through a metamorphosis of sorts when my husband died. In those years that I clung to his last name as though keeping it would somehow bring him back, I struggled with a very real crisis of identity. Who was this Heidi F person? Suddenly the F name just sounded so foreign. I had to explain myself to people who had known me as Heidi E but had missed the whole short episode of marriage that I had. It seemed to come up all the time. A big bomb dropper: “Well, yeah, I got married. But he died.” Not something you want to bring up in pleasant conversation.

As the Fs went further and further away, I was alone in an island of F-dom. I had changed my name for the love of my husband, but now he was gone. The team that was F to me was no longer a team, just a single player alone, staring at the empty soccer field of life on which the team once did battle. But E; E meant something to me. It was the name I wanted to publish under. It was the name I first learned to say and spell in kindergarten. It was ME–who I was, who I am, who I’d grow into. I changed my name back and vowed to never change it again.

But why is it that men can’t seem to see the connection between the identity attached to their own name and the one attached to a woman’s? Was I supposed to grow up expecting that my last name was not permanent? That I was supposed to “lose myself” as an individual proverbially in my marriage? If you truly believe that marriage is about creating a team, and that team has to extend to the changing of last names, then why not both people make up a name they can share together? Isn’t that a better symbol of the new symbiotic entity created in the marriage? Or take each other’s last names and hyphenate as I’ve seen friends do. (Often homosexual couples will also do this to symbolize their union.)

Why do so many men in our society have such a problem with changing their last names, but they expected it unquestioningly from their spouses? How fair is that?

Traditions need to be questioned. I’ve always questioned traditions because they don’t always make sense. It’s not enough for me to do something just because tradition dictates–I need to know the why, where, and how about the tradition. Sometimes it seems to me that we continue to participate in a tradition simply because “that’s the way it’s always been.” That’s not a good enough reason for me. Sometimes traditions, such as the woman changing her last name, are grounded in a negative historical context. I think we should discontinue practicing a tradition when we don’t agree with the basis on which it was founded. This is the modern era, afterall, and women are independant, capable of achieving their own places to live, their own sources of income, and chosing whom to marry. Traditions should bend to accommodate the change of times.

Whether or not to change your last name is purely up to the woman and/or the couple involved. I’m not advocating forcing my break with tradition on everyone else; some women aren’t attached to their names at all and feel totally okay about a name change. I’m just trying to justify here why I think it’s okay for women to decide not to change their name or, at the very least, why I would chose to not change my name should I ever get married again. I like myself as Heidi E. I’ve established a career under my current last name. It was the name my parents chose for me. I want to keep it. I don’t plan to have any children, so there’s no quandary here over whose last name the children get. (Though, I’ve always said that if I did have kids, they could take the father’s last name for ease of use; I don’t particularly care about passing my last name down to future generations. That’s my brother’s job anyway.)

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13 thoughts on “On keeping my last name

  1. Yeah!!! I completely agree here. My reasons for keeping my name were that I was SERIOUSLY tempted to take another name, forget everything I’d built as my identity under the banner of my real, given name, and attempt to become an unrealistically ideal version of me…I knew it was an opportunity to attempt perfection and to fail ultimately at perfection. It was an open door if one believes one can get away from onesself, which I knew in my heart I wouldn’t: I’m me. I had spent a lifetime struggling to accept myself for who I was at the time of my decision, and it had been a struggle against most of the people in the world, who would have preferred me to be much more conventional. I cannot be conventional. What’s more, I discovered that I had absolutely no interest in being conventional. In fact, were I to have taken that last exit from accepting who I am and had tried to start from pure, empty, perfect scratch, I would have more than half killed my enjoyment for living. Life would have been a horror of constriction, and worse, lying both to the world and to myself, trying to be what everyone wanted me to be.I kept my name, but you wouldn’t guess it if you read the title on the birthday cards my family sends me. I’ve learned to stop correcting them: they won’t get it, they don’t want to get it, they just want me to conform and take J’s name. Some are a little hurt and see my decision as some kind of judgment – a desire to be not part of J’s family. Others see it as just another way I insist on being loudly, obnoxiously different. I no longer care how they see it: I’m “Eudora Welkener”(pseud) as I was when my second grade teacher said it with derision, when my classmates whispered it and laughed, when I accomplished small and large things in my life. Mike Patton of Faith No More perhaps says it best: “Can’t you see, there’s only one me…And that me is ME!”Great post!

  2. I honestly didnt feel like me anymore when I was Heidi F without the F I married being alive… It was terrible… And since no guy can promise me he’ll live at least as long as me, I’d prefer to just remain my own name because I’ll always have that. If we picked a different joint name together, and he died, I’d be at the same place I was when Mike died. I know that sounds stupid, but geesh, I went through so many issues grieving, I need just this one thing to remain the same. Some people plan a marriage preparing for divorce in advance; I think I can’t go into a marriage anymore without thinking about the most likely situation, that one of us will die first. Not that I think of it all the time, but I’m just saying… it did… had I seen into the future with Mike, maybe I would have kept my last name then too (since he didn’t mind what I did).But it’s not only that. It’s also the stuff where I am not ashamed anymore of who I am. And, as my mom used to tell me when I told her I would use a pen name for my novels (when I thought I’d be a writer as a kid), “Why are you ashamed of your writing? Why would you not put it in your name so that people know you did it?”Good point!!Also, I’d like to point out that if not for the use of my maiden name no one would be able to find me in facebook… Well, unless I did what every other girl does, and put my maiden name in the middle name slot. But that’s besides the point! =)

  3. As someone whose married legal name is Diane H D, sing it, sister! I love my husband dearly, but that shouldn’t mean that my name has to disappear to show that love. I had that name for almost 30 years before meeting him, it’s the name on my college diploma, I couldn’t just give it up. It meant too much to me, it was too much a part of me. So I didn’t give it up, instead I just tacked my husband’s name onto the end of it. In the pre-marriage stage of my life, I was Diane H, but after marriage I am now Diane H D, using my name to visually show that my past is still relevant despite my new state of being married. Even so, despite my reasons for doing what I did with my name, sometimes I wish that I had never even done that and just left my name as Diane H. Because so many people don’t respect my decision about my name. Like Jane, I still get mail addressed to Diane D instead of Diane H D, even from people who should know better, who have been told time and again that I do not go by Diane D. And every time it happens, especially when it’s from someone who should know better, it feels like people are trying to erode my identity, to erase the old Diane H parts of myself because now that I’m married they’ll only acknowledge the D part of my identity. And that makes me want to completely rebel against ever having added his name to mine – like I have to completely rid myself of his name in order to save mine, because people won’t accept the fact that I’m using both. I put a LOT of thought into what my married name would be, and it just hurts when people, specifically those close to me, don’t respect that and insist on calling me Diane D, what they think I should be known as since I’m married, instead of using the name I chose to be known by. They’re pushing their beliefs on me instead of respecting mine. I realized just now while writing this that not once have any of those people ever asked me why I don’t want to be known as Diane D.

  4. I always ask women what they are doing with their married name. I hate to assume. And a part of me cheers everytime a woman says that they are keeping their name in some way, shape, or form. I think it is disrespectful of people to not respect your wishes once you have made them clear. I forgive people for messing up once, but not after I’ve corrected them.And you hit the nail on the head. It is totally like they are trying to erode your identity. That’s EXACTLY what it feels like.

  5. I never liked my birth name, or being associated with my family of origin. I was only too happy to change my last name. The parts of my identity that I like are not tied to my name. I’m sure I’d feel differently had I come from a more functional family.

  6. Well, like I said, to each his own. Those of us who don’t want to change our name would like the understanding of men and others for why we don’t. My family isn’t perfect, but they are certainly better than a lot of alternatives.Actually, I shouldnt even say that. I should say that my family is fantastic, which I’ve come to appreciate in my later years. Now that my brain isnt messed up by the rebelliousness of adolescence, I see the strength in my family and I’m glad I have them. My parents proved themselves in a dark time in my life whereas my “chosen” family didn’t. It makes me immediately sorry for all the pain I inflicted on them in the past. Blood is thicker than water and it took me about 30 years and the death of my husband to realize that. No one–no “chosen” family–could ever support me the way they did. A spouse can, but the family that comes with him is only a mirage placed there for your benefit while the spouse lives. Or if you have grandchildren. Never again will I be so blindly led to give my heart to people… I think that’s a lesson my parents tried to teach me when I was a lot younger but I was too head-strong to believe until I went through it.But everyone has their own experience. As I see how messed up other people’s families are, I’m thankful even more for the parents I have. I had a good childhood minus the a-holes in school who picked on me. My home life was always safe and my parents provided me that. All this makes me want to keep the family name even more.

  7. I agree with you in that I think it’s completely heinous that women are automatically expected to change their names upon marriage.On the other hand, a name is just a name. I get the identity thing. When you’ve been known by a name for so long, it becomes comfortable and familiar. But really, my last name is just the last name of my father – not the last name of my mother or my grandmother or my great great grandfather’s grandmother or any of the other “family” names linked to me somehow.And I think when you get married, your identity DOES change. Not your personality. But, there’s suddenly another human being that makes up your “unit”. That seems like an identity change to me.It’s tough trying to come up with a solution to the name change thing. D and I want to be known as a single “unit” – we want a team name.My changing my name to his was out of the question and him changing to mine seemed just as unfair. So, we decided we’d both have to change to a new shared last name.He hasn’t put up any protest, and is in fact, all for this idea, but it will be harder for him to explain to people why he suddenly has a new name than it will be for me. Some traditions suck :) As you said, to each his own.

  8. Cathryn–I’m all for the “making up your own name” thing. My aunt did that. I’ve just never been with a man who would agree to do that… (I have, however, been with a man who said he’d change his last name to mine–my how that one broke my heart when we split later!)It <>is<> kind of weird when men change their last names. A co-worker at a former job had changed his name when he got married and, after his divorce, he was changing it back to his “maiden” name. Behind his back, other male co-workers would kind of suggest that he was less than manly because he had changed his name to the woman’s when he got married. So I think it takes a guy pretty comfortable with himself–and not needing to prove his manhood to other men–to decide to change his name.Do I agree with our society’s decree on what makes a manly man? Not at all! I scoff it all the time because it seems stupid to me. But then, I’m not a man…Regardless… that’s cool that you’re going to make up your own team name. Make it a good one! I think I would have a lot of fun with that one!! (Don’t tempt a writer!!)

  9. Thank you for so eloquently identifying the very reasons I kept my own name. My husband is indeed my family (same last name or not), but his family (nice though they may be) will never replace my own. I earned my name and every good or bad feeling it evokes from the person using it.

    It amazes me when people address me incorrectly and then justify it by saying they are correcting my rudeness to him and his family in not changing my name. The last time I checked there is no etiquette rule regarding this, just a antiquated tradition. The real rudeness lies in their unwillingness to respect my (and my husband's) wishes.

  10. Hallelujah. It always warms the cockles of my heart (what are those, anyway?) to know there are other gals are out there who think this way – I don't know too many of them in my real life, and know even fewer men who think this way (although thank goodness my partner isn't one of them).

    Love your blog, especially the posts under the feminism tag! Came here via a comment of yours on Matt's biking blog (I'm his partner, Kira :o)

  11. Oh, hello, Kira!! Welcome! What a pleasure to meet the woman who Matt always refers to on his blog! ;) You take excellent pictures!

    I havent had too many feminist rant entries lately… It seems to piss off my male readers and I know some of them so I tamed down. Maybe I'll throw another up there soon. ;) Have you read my rants against baby/bridal showers? ;)

    I have a friend who lives in Seattle. I love you west coasters!

  12. Pingback: A Rose By Any Other Name… « Mars Girl on Two Wheels

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